|Ernst Pressburger looks through a book chronicling the journey from the Jews of Rexingen, Germany, to Shavei Zion, Israel. Josh Lipowsky|
Ernst Pressburger, 75, sat in his Wayne home on Monday looking over pictures of his life in Germany before World War II. And though he was but a child at the time, he remembers the aftermath of the pogroms of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938, which many consider the beginning in earnest of the Holocaust.
Pressburger was born in the small village of Rexingen, which had a population of about 1,000, of which 260 were Jews. In 1935, many of the village’s younger Jews decided they needed to get out of Germany. They looked to what was then Palestine, and, like the biblical spies Moses sent to the land of Canaan, Rexingen’s Jewish leaders sent three people to Palestine to see if the villagers could make a living there. And although upon their return they spoke of hardships, they said the Rexingen Jews could make a living in the holy land. In 1938, a group of 41 people founded a moshav called Shavei Zion, Return to Zion.
Not everybody wanted to go there, though. Many thought themselves too old to start over, while others, like Pressburger’s father, didn’t like the idea of a Communist-style collective. Ernst Pressburger, his sister Anne, and their parents, Adolf and Paula, remained in the village.
In November 1938, the village’s synagogue, dating to 1710, was set on fire.
“Several of the Jewish men went down to put out the fire,” Pressburger said. “A lot of the regular firemen stood around and watched. The police stood around and watched.”
Then just 4, Pressburger remembers that the police and firemen largely ignored the emergency. Except one policeman, Pressburger said, who saved a Torah from the burning synagogue and gave it to one of the villagers headed for Palestine.
Pressburger doesn’t remember Kristallnacht itself well, but he remembers the next day when Paula Pressburger told her children that a salesman was bothering her and she didn’t want to talk to him. If he came to the door, she told her children, the family should pretend they are not home. The next day, two men in leather coats and hats came to the Pressburger house, pounding on the door, and the family hid behind the sofa, silent, until they left.
Someone had alerted Adolf Pressburger that the Nazis were coming to arrest him, so he fled to the nearby Black Forest, where he stayed for a few days. When he came back he was arrested and held in the town’s prison. Pressburger’s mother said she was going to take some things to him, and young Pressburger threw a tantrum until his mother agreed to take him along.
When they arrived at Adolf Pressburger’s cell, young Ernst shouted at the guards, “You can’t take him! I won’t let you!”
Adolf Pressburger, through his cell, calmed his son, telling him, “Your sister and mother are going to be alone without a man to protect them. Would you do that until I come home?”
“I stood up and said, ‘I will,'” Pressburger said. “From that day on my childhood ended because I had the responsibilities of a man.”
Adolf Pressburger was sent to Dachau, but returned several weeks later with stories of how the inmates had to stand outside in the cold and the Nazis would turn hoses on them.
In 1940, the U.S. consulate allowed Pressburger’s parents to go to the United States, but Pressburger and his older sister Anne would have to stay in Germany with their grandparents until their parents could show that they could support their children.
|Ernst Pressburger visited his childhood home during his first trip back to Rexingen in the 1970s.Courtesy Ernst Pressburger|
In 1941, 9-year-old Anne and 6-year-old Ernst were finally set to leave Germany. They boarded a train for Paris, where they would take another train to Spain. After a week, they boarded a ship.
“You have to be lucky in life. We were very lucky in that we got on that ship,” he said, noting that German U-boats were trying to sink ships crossing the ocean.
On April 3, the children arrived in Brooklyn. Their father had found a job taking care of a nearby farm, and the family soon moved to Washington Heights.
People from Germany would ask one another what they had heard about the war. Some letters from the camps, not many, Pressburger said, were able to get out through the Red Cross. Pressburger recalled that one day his sister came home from school and their mother was sitting shiva. She had received a letter from her father that said not to bother looking for him after the war.
In 1944, the remaining Jews of Rexingen, 128 people, were sent to concentration camps. Three survived.
“The Jewish people in Rexingen, before the Nazis came, really had a good life and they enjoyed it,” Pressburger said, flipping through a journal commemorating 70 years of Shavei Zion. The journal chronicled life in the moshav and Rexingen, and Pressburger pointed out pictures of himself as a child and his family in school and at Purim celebrations.
The Jews from Rexingen who came to America formed a benevolent association and erected a monument at Cedar Park cemetery in Paramus. Members still meet there every year on the Sunday closest to Nov. 9.
Unfortunately, he said, Kristallnacht does not receive the recognition it should, even in the Jewish community.
|Ernst Pressburger he also picked up a postcard in the 1970s featuring his village. Courtesy Ernst Pressburger|
“In the United States, and rightfully so, the Warsaw Ghetto has become the key event, and that’s fine,” he said. “Kristallnacht is not considered a key event and is not even recognized by many.”
Pressburger became an engineer and in 1973, while working on a flight test in Israel, stopped in Germany with his wife, Minnie, and their two daughters so he could show his family where he had grown up. They visited Rexingen and Pressburger’s old house, then occupied by the people who had used to live next door.
“Without thinking about it,” Pressburger said, “when I met someone I automatically thought, ‘How old is this person? How old were they at the time?'”
In Rexingen, Pressburger met a veterinarian, and while their children went off to play, the doctor told Pressburger that he had served in the German army during World War II because as a 17-year-old, that’s what you were supposed to do.
Pressburger called the fact that the German people did not collectively resist Hitler “the biggest idiocy.”
“At the time, if you read the history and go back, the German institutions were very weak and they didn’t stand up,” he said. “If they had, things would have been very different, because it turns out Hitler was very political and … he would back off if he got a lot of resistance. But there wasn’t a lot of resistance.”
Pressburger recalled a TV documentary about the Japanese from which he learned that a German Jewish banker from New York had funded Japan during the Russo-Japanese War because Russians were killing Jews. In the early 1930s, Japan offered to take in any Jews who wanted to come there in order to boost the country’s industry, but European Jewish leaders turned down the offer because they thought the United States and Great Britain would come to their rescue. Those countries also could have acted differently during World War II, while the German government and army could have fought off Hitler’s rise to power, Pressburger said.
“The Holocaust could have been avoided,” he said. “Many have sinned. Things happened the way they happened. That should only make us aware of the future. History is only good if you learn from it and use it.”
Unfortunately, Pressburger said, pointing to a rise of anti-Semitism in the past few years, he does not see people learning from history. Because his first wife was Canadian, Pressburger’s children have dual citizenship, and he prefers that his children and grandchildren have more than one passport. Though his younger daughter cannot conceive of things changing as drastically in America as they did in Germany, Pressburger said, he pointed out that his family lived comfortably in Germany for 300 years.
“One would hope that when push comes to shove, things would be different,” he said.